History of the VA

Updated: May 2, 2021

Table of Contents

    The Department of Veterans Affairs is one of the most important-to-veterans federal agencies in America. What is the VA and how did it evolve?

    Before There Was A Department Of Veterans Affairs

    History of the VA In 1776, the American Revolution required a big mobilization at a time when there was no legacy of a united fighting force to rely on. The Continental Congress didn’t have the legal authority to do much of what we consider today as equipping, paying, and maintaining a permanent army and much of the organization of armed troops was left to the individual states to deal with.

    And when it came to taking care of those who fought in the Revolution? Leaving the matter to the individual states didn’t work out so well. VA sources report only about 3,000 military pensions were ever paid to those who fought during the American Revolution.

    In 1789, the passage of the United States Constitution was the “big first” for the nation, but another big first came in the form of the First Congress assuming responsibility for paying benefits to military veterans.

    Changes In The Approach To Military Pensions

    In 1808, the Secretary of War was the overseer of all veteran-related programs and VA sources report these were administered by the Bureau of Pensions.

    Come 1812, the nation gets much closer to a modern-day approach to veterans and their service; new laws affecting veteran benefits also include mention of spouses and dependents. By 1816 the VA reports there were more than 2,000 military pensions paid.

    But there were problems–could these pensions keep up with the cost of living?

    1816 was also the year Congress voted to increase payments for disabled veterans and offer limited-time “half-pay pensions” to widows and orphans of the War of 1812.

    There was more evolution in 1818 thanks to the Service Pension Law, which addressed needs for those who fought in the American Revolution. Those who qualified and were in need could be awarded a lifetime fixed pension at $20 per month for officers, $8 a month for enlisted troops.

    The Civil War

    The military pension issue and related matters would get many tweaks and adjustments along the way to the next major American conflict in the nation’s early history.

    There were under 100,000 war veterans on the books prior to the start of the Civil War in 1861. The scale of the American conflict was so large that by war’s end nearly two million more veterans were added to the count. Keep in mind that this number does NOT represent the losing side of the Civil War.

    When the South surrendered to the North, it did not extend federal benefits for military service to Confederate troops. That would not happen until 1958 when there was a Congressional pardon for those who fought for the South–at that time military pension benefits were offered to the sole surviving Confederate soldier at the time.

    1862 And Beyond: Getting Closer To A Department Of Veterans Affairs

    A major step forward for veterans after the Civil War offered disability payments based on criteria which included rank as well as the nature of the medical issue.

    The General Pension Act of 1862 also created benefits for widows, children and dependent relatives. It provided first-time benefits for diseases incurred while serving and not just injuries directly related to fighting or defense. 1862 is also the year the National Cemetery System was created to accommodate dead from the Civil War.

    President Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address in 1865 and this is the moment when the VA motto was born. Lincoln issued a directive to Congress, to provide care for “him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

    1865 is the same year Congress created a national home for disabled soldiers.

    1917: The War Risk Act

    The evolution of the contemporary Department of Veterans Affairs was a long and winding journey, and many factors converged over time to bring the federal government to the conclusion that a federal agency was needed to handle the kinds of compensation, care, and insurance needs that a standing military requires.

    The nation got much closer to that end in 1917 with the amendment of legislation known as the War Risk Act. As amended it offered “insurance against loss of life, personal injury or capture by the enemy of personnel” on board American merchant ships.

    Important as that may have been at the time, there was another significant feature of the amendments–provision of a government-supported life insurance program for veterans as well as a military discharge allowance at the end of World War One.

    But that wasn’t all–the amended War Risk Act also provided for rehabilitation and vocational training for permanently disabled veterans.

    By 1920 there were three separate federal agencies overseeing programs for veterans. It was time to centralize and streamline these operations and as a result, Congress authorized creation of a Veterans’ Bureau in 1921. It consolidated operations managed by:

    • Bureau of War Risk Insurance
    • Public Health Service
    • Federal Board of Vocational Education

    The Veterans Bureau got off to a rocky start–its first director, Colonel Charles Forbes, was relieved of his duties at the Bureau and was eventually convicted and sent to prison for conspiracy to defraud the government on hospital contracts.

    Enter General Frank Hines, who began reforming the Bureau in 1924, reorganizing the agency into a group of services including medical, rehabilitation, claims/insurance, and planning.

    Hines would be the very first administrator of the replacement of the Veterans Bureau in 1929–President Herbert Hoover signed an executive order establishing the Veterans Administration in 1930.

    Enter The VA

    No, the Veterans Administration wasn’t yet the Department of Veterans Affairs that we know today, but it was definitely moving in the right direction.

    As with many of the significant changes that have come to both the military and the VA, some of those changes did not originate with legislation specifically created to that effect as stand-alone House Resolutions or Senate bills. Instead, some of the important strides forward were included in other legislation.

    Some criticize this practice, but without the passage of the 1933 Economy Act and the measures added to it, the President would not have had the legal authority to approve and issue new veteran benefits. The Board of Veterans Appeals was established in 1933 and gave veterans the ability to appeal a VA decision on their benefits.

    The World War Two era was filled with significant firsts including the creation of a new insurance program for military members–in 1940 the creation of National Service Life Insurance program would be the precursor for insurance programs military members sign up for today.

    This in addition to the establishment of the National Selective Service, as well as the passage of the Disabled Veterans’ Rehabilitation Act of 1943 led the nation closer to the VA as we know it today.

    The VA And The GI Bill

    In the minds of some, the Department of Veterans Affairs history pivots on the establishment of the GI Bill. Troops returning home from World War Two came home, starting in 1944, to the benefits of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, also called the GI Bill of Rights.

    The law was a major game-changer for veterans. It provided up to four years of education, it offered a loan for a farm or home with no down payment required, and it also provided unemployment compensation. The education portion of this would become known as the GI Bill.

    These benefits would be further supplemented by the Veterans’ Preference Act of 1944, which was the start of federal hiring preference based on military service. Later, veterans of the Korean War were provided similar assistance thanks to what was commonly referred to as the Korean GI Bill, more formally the Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1952.

    Becoming The Modern VA Under General Omar Bradley

    In the meantime, General Omar Bradley took over at the VA in 1945 and the agency began a slow process of modernizing. The following year 1946, Public Law 293 was responsible for the creation of the VA Department of Medicine and Surgery.

    The VA would have its hands full in the coming years including research on pension payments that resulted in the Veterans Pension Act of 1959. Veterans were offered, for the first time, pension benefits offered on the basis of income rather than a flat rate.

    The Vietnam era and the post-Vietnam era would bring many other changes to the agency. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s when the agency we know today would come into view. There was a name change AND an elevation in status–it was renamed in 1988 as the Department of Veterans Affairs and elevated to a Cabinet-level department within the federal government.

    The Department of Veterans Affairs Today

    In the 21st century, the Department of Veterans Affairs has four missions–veteran healthcare, with some 1,200 facilities serving approximately nine million veterans.

    The Veteran Benefits program helps military members and families transition out of military life into the civilian world. The VA National Cemetery Administration maintains more than 140 cemeteries open to qualifying veterans and their families.

    The Department of Veterans Affairs has a fourth mission described as preparedness; being ready to assist the nation’s response to terrorism, national emergencies, disasters, war, and related issues by “taking actions to ensure continued service to veterans” as well as supporting local and federal agencies in their health and safety measures.


    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News


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